By Astghik Bedevian and Karine Kalantarian
Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian campaigned in the southeastern Syunik region on Thursday, again promising economic betterment and saying that he would safeguard Armenia’s national security better than any of his eight election challengers.
“The war [with Azerbaijan] made be a realist, I want to become president of the republic,” Sarkisian told hundreds of people attending his campaign rally in the regional capital Kapan. His ten-minute speech there was preceded and followed by a free concert of Armenian pop starts traveling with the prime minister.
“I want to become president of the republic so that our cities are not bombarded anymore, so that lights are always on in our homes in the evening, so that we can turn the victory achieved at the cost of your sacrifices and heroic acts by your sons and our comrades into a document,” he said in a town that endured cross-border shelling from nearby Azerbaijani army positions during the 1992-1994 war.
Syunik is the second Armenian province visited by Sarkisian since the official start of campaigning for the February 19 presidential election on Monday. He started the campaign in the neighboring Vayots Dzor region, promising to double household incomes in the country within five years if he becomes president. This was also a key theme of his speeches in Kapan and other regional towns.
“I will ensure that none of those who have backed me feels embarrassed for electing me,” the prime minister declared in the main Kapan square adorned with his massive campaign billboard. “We have all the possibilities of living at least twice as better in five years from now.”
As was the case during similar rallies staged by Sarkisian’s Republican Party (HHK) ahead of the May 2007 parliamentary elections, many in the crowd were teachers of public schools and their students. Schoolchildren interviewed by RFE/RL claimed that they were ordered by their teachers to come to the rally after their classes.
Meanwhile, more than 300 kilometers to the north, in the southern Ararat region, the Sarkisian campaign faced allegations of vote buying from local residents attending campaign gatherings organized by Artur Baghdasarian, one of the opposition presidential candidates. “Serzh Sarkisian said yesterday that those who hand out cash [to voters] are traitors,” a woman, who identified herself as Lena, told Baghdasarian in the local town of Vedi. “Maybe the presidential candidate doesn’t know that people are collecting [voters’] passports on his behalf.”
“They go from village to village, from house to house and hand out cash,” she claimed without naming names.
Vote buying has grown widespread in Armenia over the past decade. The HHK and other pro-government parties were accused by their opponents of heavily relying to the illegal practice during the 2007 parliamentary polls. They both strongly denied such accusations.
“I must say that all those village mayors and other individuals who commit electoral crimes will be strictly punished by law,” Baghdasarian told voters in Vedi. He also deplored what he called an atmosphere of fear reigning in Ararat.
Much of the fruit-growing region is widely regarded as the de facto fiefdom of the influential Deputy Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamian, who is also Sarkisian’s campaign manager.